Timothy Shay Arthur, 1859
In a previous chapter, I gave the reader one of the experiences of my sister's husband, Mr. John Jones. I now give another.
There was a time in my married life, (thus Mr. Jones writes, in one of his "Confessions,") when I was less annoyed if my shirt happened to be minus a button, than I am at present. But continual dropping will wear away a stone, and the ever recurring buttonless collar or wristband, will wear out a man's patience, be he as naturally as enduring as the man from Uz.
I don't mean by this, that Mrs. Jones is a neglectful woman. Oh, no! don't let that be imagined for a moment. My wife Mary is a woman who has an eye for shirt buttons, and when that is said, a volume is told in a few words.
But I don't care how careful a wife is, nor how good an eye she may have for shirt buttons, there will come a time, when, from some cause or other, she will momentarily abate her vigilance, and that will be the very time when Betty's washing-board, or Nancy's sad-iron, has been at work upon the buttons.
For a year or two after our marriage, I used to express impatience, whenever, in putting on a clean shirt, I found a button gone. Mary bore this for a while without exhibiting much feeling. But it fretted her more than she permitted anyone to see. At length, the constant recurrence of the evil — I didn't know as much then as I do now — annoyed me so that I passed from ejaculatory expressions of impatience into more decided and emphatic disapprobation, and to "Psha!" and "there it is again!" and the like were added:
"I declare, Mary, this is too bad!" or "I've given up hoping for a shirt with a full complement of buttons — " or "If you can't sew the buttons on my shirt, Mary, I will hire someone to do it."
This last expression of displeasure I never ventured upon but once. I have always felt ashamed of it since, whenever a recollection of my unreasonableness and impatience in the early times of the shirt button trouble, has crossed my mind. My wife took it so much to heart, and so earnestly avowed her constant solicitude in regard to the shirt buttons, that I resolved from that time, to bear the evil like a man, and instead of grumbling or complaining, make known the fact of a deficiency whenever it occurred, as a good joke. And so for a year or so it used to be when the buttons were missing:
"Buttons again, Mary;" or "Did you see that?" or "Here's the old story" —
Always said laughingly, and varied as to the mood or fertility of imagination. But on so grave a subject as shirt buttons, Mary had no heart for a joke. The fact that her vigilance had proved all in vain, and that, spite of constant care, a shirt had found its way into my drawer, lacking its full complement of buttons, was something too serious for a smile or a jest, and my words, no matter how lightly spoken, would be felt as a reproof. Any allusion, therefore, to shirt buttons, was sure to produce a cloud upon the otherwise calm brow of Mary. It was a sore subject, and could not be touched even by the light end of a feather without producing pain.
What was I to do? Put off with the lack of a shirt button uncomplainingly? Pin my collar, if the little circular piece of ivory were gone, and not hint at the omission? Yes; I resolved not to say a word more about shirt buttons, but to bear the evil, whenever it occurred, with the patience of a martyr.
Many days had not passed after this resolution was taken, before, on changing my linen one morning, I found that there was a button less than the usual number on the bosom of my shirt. Mary had been up on the evening before, half an hour after I was in bed, looking over my shirts, to see if everything was in order. But even her sharp eyes had failed to discover the place left vacant by a deserting member of the shirt button fraternity. I knew she had done her best, and I pitied, rather than blamed her, for I was sensible that a knowledge of the fact which had just come to light would trouble her a thousand times more than it did me.
The breakfast hour passed without a discovery by Mary of the fact that there was a button off of the bosom of my shirt. But, when I came in at dinner time, her first words, looking at me, were: "Why, Mr. Jones, there's a button off your bosom."
"I know," said I, indifferently. "It was off when I put the shirt on this morning. But it makes no difference — you can sew it on when the shirt next comes from the wash."
I was really sincere in what I said, and took some merit to myself for being as composed as I was on so agitating subject. Judge of my surprise, then, to hear Mary exclaim, with a flushed face, "Indeed, Mr. Jones, this is too much! no difference, indeed? A nice opinion people must have had of your wife, to see you going about with your bosom all gaping open in that style?"
"Nobody noticed it," said I in reply. "Don't you see that the edges lie perfectly smooth together, as much so as if held by a button?"
But it was no use to say anything; Mary was hurt at my not speaking of the button.
"I'm sure," she said, "that I am always ready to do anything for you. I never complain about sewing on your buttons."
"Nonsense, Mary! don't take it so much to heart," I replied; "here, get your needle and thread, and you can have it all right in a minute. It's but a trifle — I'm sure I haven't thought about it since I put on the shirt this morning."
But all would not do — Mary's grief was too real; and when I, losing to some extent, my patience, said fretfully, "I wish somebody would invent a shirt without buttons!" she sighed deeply, and in a little while I saw her handkerchief go quietly to her eyes. Again and again I tried the say-nothing plan; but it worked worse, if anything, than the other; for Mary was sure to find out the truth, and then she would be dreadfully hurt about my omission to speak.
And so the years have passed. Sometimes I fret a little when I find a shirt button off; sometimes I ask mildly to have the omission supplied when I discover its existence; sometimes I jest about it, and sometimes I bear the evil in silence. But the effects produced upon Mary are about the same. Her equanimity of mind is disturbed, and she will look unhappy for hours. Never but once have I complained without a cause. But that one instance gave Mary a triumph which has done much to sustain her in all her subsequent trials.
We had some friends staying with us, and among the various matters of discussion that came up during the social evenings we spent together, shirt buttons were, on one occasion, conspicuous. To record all that was said about them would fill pages, and I will not, therefore, attempt even a brief record of all the allegations brought against the useful little shirt button. The final decision was, that it must be Adam's Apple of Discord in disguise.
"A button off, as usual!" I muttered to myself the next morning, as I put on a clean shirt. Mary had risen half an hour before me, and was downstairs giving some directions about breakfast, so that I could not ask to have it sewed on.
And after leaving my room, I thought it as well not to say anything about it. In due time we gathered with our friends around the breakfast table. A sight of them reminded me of the conversation the previous evening, and I felt an irresistible desire to allude to the missing shirt button as quite an apropos and amusing incident. So, speaking from the impulse of the moment, I said, glancing first at Mary, then around the table, and then pointing down at my bosom, "The old story of shirt buttons again!"
Instantly the color mounted to the cheeks and brow of Mary; then the color as quickly melted away, and a look of triumph passed over her face. She pushed back her chair quickly, and rising up, came round to where I sat, took hold of the button I had failed to see, and holding it between her fingers, said, "Oh, yes, this is the old story, Mr. Jones!"
I drew down my chin so as to get a low angle of vision, and sure enough, the button was there! A burst of laughter went around the table, in which Mary most heartily joined; and I laughed, too, as glad as she was, that the joke was all on her side. I have never, you may be sure, heard the last of this; but it was a lucky incident, for it has given Mary something to fall back upon, and have her jest occasionally, whenever I happen to discover that a button is among the missing, and that she can, even at times, find it in her heart to jest on such a subject, is, I can assure you, a great gain. So much for shirt buttons. I could say a great deal more, for the subject is inexhaustible. But I will forbear.